One question I'm often asked is "how do you capture such beautiful landscape photography images? Do you just have amazing luck?" And while luck sometimes plays a part in success there is always a lot of planning that goes into it too. Here are my xx tips to plan your landscape photography shoot for the best chance of success.
If you want to visit a location you've never been before, a great place to start is with a Google Image search. Just type up the location you're searching for such as "Hokitika Gorge" and then click on the Image results. Whilst a lot of shots shown are often random snapshots and won't show the best compositions you can still get an idea of the location and some angles that are available to shoot.
You can also search via Instagram by searching on the location 'Hokitika Gorge' or via the hashtag #hokitikagorge to see what other people have chosen to shoot from here. Looking at the Recent posts vs Top Posts can also help to give you some idea of the current conditions at the location - this can be really helpful with locations like waterfalls if you are trying to gauge how much water flow there is.
There are a plethora of different weather apps you can use to check the forecast for your landscape photography shoot but some are definitely better than others. So which ones are good and which ones should you avoid like the plague?
These are the apps I've found to be pretty reliable (I've set these all to show you the same forecast for Cathedral Cove in the Coromandel):
This is a Norwegian based weather service and seems to be the most accurate of any weather app I've used - there's both a desktop and mobile version and on desktop you can see the forecast down to hour by hour and predicted cloud cover (very important for predicting good sunrise and sunset colour!)
This has both a desktop and mobile app and is pictorially very nice to view. You can check up-to-date satellite imagery, cloud cover, fog, wind and many more layers. The fog predictions are definitely helpful living in the Waikato in winter! It also pops up with local webcams which can be useful to check for what the weather is actually doing in a location compared to what the forecast says it is!
This site gives a good overview of longer term predicted cloud and rain coverage over NZ for the next few days - it can be useful if trying to decide where to go next if you're travelling around NZ and have flexibility to follow the good weather.
Other apps you can use but ones I've found to be less reliable:
This is NZ's official weather website but it is a bit limited - it only really shows temperature and wind speed predictions and a very general daily overview for a town or local region, for Cathedral Cove the closest forecast you can get is a regional forecast for Whitianga. It is quite useful for getting weather reports for national parks and locations at different altitudes though, e.g. the forecast for Egmont National Park has both a summit forecast and forecast at the visitor centre where wind and weather can be very different.
Despite its name it can be a bit hit and miss - I used to use this one until I discovered the likes of windy.com and yr.no which I think are better. What I liked about it were the hourly cloud cover predictions, visibility and dew point readings which you can see all on one screen.
Sometimes the best way to know what's happening in a location is to check a webcam as we all know forecasts aren't always accurate. When I'm travelling and trying to choose a direction to head next if I have some flexibility in the route planning then I'll often check out the webcams for several locations to make a decision. This is one of the best sites with a lot of different webcams to choose from - Take A Break.
These are useful to see what's been happening in real-time, scroll backwards and forwards through the day's time line to see the weather changing during the day.
There are lots of other sources of webcams in NZ, the best way to find a specific location is to do a google search for "location + webcam" to see what else is available. When you view Windy.com for a location, any available webcams will also pop up in the bottom left of the screen and you can view real-time conditions this way as well.
If there was one tool I recommend more than any other for advance planning your photography shoot, PhotoPills is it. You do have to pay a one-off fee of $16.99 NZD to download but it's worth every penny and more. The tool is great for the following:
The sun's angle changes all year-round and can be significantly different from summer to winter in NZ. If you know the date you will be visiting a location you can jump ahead to that date to see where the sun will rise and set - this can be particularly helpful if you are trying to line the sun up with an object in your frame (a jetty, mountain, rock etc), or merely decide whether a location is better suited for a morning or evening shoot. You can see from the example below the angle of the sunrise at Cathedral Cove is very different from summer to winter. My preference is to shoot a summer sunrise here with the sun rising just to the left of the cave.
I often want to know when the new moon is to plan the best conditions for Milky Way astrophotography shoots. This tool makes it very easy to see at a glance exactly when the moon will rise and set and how much moon is visible. This helps me to plan ahead for my landscape photography workshop schedule for the year to decide on the best dates to coincide with a new moon, or close to it.
Another fantastic feature of the Planner tool is to see the direction and elevation of the Milky Way throughout the night - some locations are better early in the season for a vertical rise (April - July) while other locations come into their own later in the year for a horizontal setting (August - October). You can see for any given time during the evening how high the Milky Way is, elevations of less than 50-60 degrees are the best if you want to get the Milky Way into a single frame without stitching.
One of the BEST features of PhotoPills is the ability to turn up to a location and check out what the scene will look like at the exact time and date you are going to be there. For example in January 2020, I visited both Coromandel and Taranaki (see example of Cape Egmont lighthouse above) and was able to see exactly how the Milky Way will look in the sky for the dates later in the year when I'll be there for workshops - so so handy!
One thing that can really scupper a photography shoot is the tides. New Zealand has some incredible coastal locations like Cathedral Cove, The Three Sisters and Wharariki Beach that you have to visit at low tide or you won't be able to get the best compositions or reach the location at all in some cases. Other locations like the wharf at Thames and other coastal jetties are only good during high tide otherwise they are surrounded by mud so make sure you check out the tides before you plan your visit. I use the Tides4fishing website and find a tide forecast that's close to where I want to go. This site is great as it gives you a whole month's worth of data in one screen to make it easy to plan around the tides.
There's nothing more frustrating than not allowing yourself enough time to get to a location and seeing the sky light up with amazing colour before you get there. Do your research so that you plan enough time to get there. If you're going to a location for the first time in the dark, make sure you've researched how long it will take based on more than one person's estimate - official sites like DOC can over or underestimate the time it takes to get there. For example, the walk from Hahei Beach to Cathedral Cove states 1 hour 10 minutes on the official DOC sign but the longest it took me was 40 minutes so this was hugely overestimated.
It's also important to note that though landscape photographers will mostly choose the hours just before and after sunset and sunrise for optimal light conditions, amazing lighting and weather conditions can happen at any time of the day so don't limit yourself to only shooting at these times. The shot below was taken mid afternoon but I loved the clouds and the light in this frame.
If you have the benefit of time while you're at a location, you should also try to visit a location more than once. Different times of day can produce vastly different results and often the time you thought you would get the best shot isn't how it turns out in reality. Whilst some spots seem to be inherently suited to either sunrise or sunset based on the direction they face, keep an open mind and come back at a different time to see how conditions change. In the examples below at Lake Matheson, I visited twice for sunrise and once for sunset over 1.5 days and got very different conditions each time.
It's fair to say that most people jump for joy when they see clear skies and settled weather, but not THIS photographer. In all my years of shooting, I've come to realise that the most amazing lighting conditions can occur during unsettled weather, often just before or after storms. So when you see rain forecast, don't put the camera away. If anything, that's the time you should be heading out the door to see what magic you can capture with amazing cloud formations and brooding skies overhead.
It goes without saying the right gear can make ALL the difference between failure and success for a landscape photography shoot. Depending on the location and time of year, some or all of the following will be a godsend:
If there's one piece of advice I could leave you with, it is to BE ORIGINAL!
In this day and age with over-saturation on social media of popular spots to visit, it can be easy to turn up to a location with only 1 composition in mind - THE composition that everyone else gets (ahem: The Wanaka Tree) . But I'd urge you to go with an open mind to a popular spot and not just shoot the shot you've already seen online. Better still, find some spots that aren't popular and make them your own! I love living in the Waikato for that reason - some of my favourite shots have come from no-name locations that I just happened to come across at the right time to create a unique shot.
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